May 25, 2016 (JUBA/NAIROBI) – South Sudan’s top army commanders should thoroughly investigate abuses committed by its forces, ensuring that those responsible are held accountable, a United States-based human rights body said in a new report.
“They should know that they too could face international and criminal sanctions if they don’t take concrete action in accordance with the law,” Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report issued Wednesday.
According to the rights body, South Sudan government soldiers carried out a wide range of often-deadly attacks on civilians in and around the country’s town of Wau.
The soldiers, it alleged, killed, tortured, raped, and detained civilians and looted and burned down homes in the attacks.
Abuses in the Western Bahr el Ghazal region reportedly took place during government counterinsurgency operations that intensified after a peace deal was signed last year.
The attacks, the rights body stressed, underscored the need for the national unity government to take immediate steps toward accountability for crimes by all warring parties since the start of South Sudan’s conflict in mid-December 2013.
“With all eyes on the new national unity government in Juba, government soldiers have been literally getting away with murder in the country’s western regions,” said Bekele.
“The new government should immediately call a halt to the abuse, free all arbitrarily detained civilians, and support the creation of a war crimes court that can investigate and prosecute those responsible, including at the highest levels of authority,” he added.
ARMY DISMISSES REPORT
A spokesperson for the national army, Brig. Gen Lul Ruai Koang, said the report was “bias, one sided and heavily relied on incredible eye witnesses to draw conclusions”.
He instead said his office would provide graphic evidences proving that “horrific”crimes were indeed committed against innocent civilians by the “criminals and bandits”.
“These are crimes that HRW either deliberately, out of ignorant or in haste failed to mention in its report as some of the most terrible and heartbreaking crimes committed by unlawful combatants we have been battling,” said Koang.
“It’s good to underscore that it takes two to tangle,” he added.
The report says newly deployed, mostly Dinka, soldiers from the South Sudanese army allegedly attacked ethnic Fertit civilians in villages and neighborhoods of the town of Wau.
The abuses, it said, forced tens of thousands of people to flee, leaving villages and entire neighborhoods empty, which it found during a research mission to Wau in April.
The rights body claimed it documented numerous killings, most of which were reportedly committed by SPLA soldiers.
Since late 2015, it said, local authorities, including the governor of the newly created Wau state, Elias Waya Nyipuoch, and community leaders have been reporting the spate of abuses to the army and other government officials.
No steps, the US-based rights body said, were taken to investigate these abuses.
The new transitional government of national unity, Human Rights Watch said, should ask the African Union to promptly establish the hybrid tribunal envisioned in the August 2015 peace agreement to try serious crimes in South Sudan.
“National authorities should also investigate and fairly prosecute human rights violations. The UN peacekeeping mission should also report publicly on the abuses and the government’s response,” further says the new report.